One of the panels I attended at PantheaCon was Turning the Wheel: Nurturing Young Leaders and Embracing Change. Many of the panelists discussed their challenges as leaders, and the strides they have made in trying to reach out to the next generation. There were some very good points made, and overall I wish we had much more time to really delve into the topic.
The recording is now up on Elemental Castings. I encourage you to listen to it – you may hear things differently and leave with a different take away. Besides, there was a lot of laughter. Don’t take my word for any of it. Go listen!
Now, this panel was not staffed by young people – they all seemed to be around 30 and over – and this fact was owned up front by all of the participants. Jason Pitzl even yielded his chair to a younger leader when (teasingly) called out on it. I have great respect for many of the participants that were on this panel and seeing that this subject, which is something I am passionate about, was going to be discussed was one of the reasons I decided to attend PantheaCon for the first time.
I’m also glad that I did not agree with everything that was said, because it got me thinking in different ways about how we approach creating networks of healthy communities.
One of the things that got me about this panel was that, when it came time to ask questions, a few college-age Pagans spoke up, and asked about how to get invited into established spaces, how to be taken seriously, and what can they do to pursue the path of leadership. The responses that were given by the panel came across to me like a "pick yourself up by your bootstraps" mentality. The suggestions included "just be persistent, knock the door down, push against the glass ceiling, make yourself be heard, fake it until you make it" and eventually people (implying people in positions of leadership) will take notice. I know the people on the panel are not proponents of bootstrap mentality, and I understand what I believe is the sentiment behind the responses: Don’t give up, don’t let anyone tell you that you can’t do something, don’t let anything hold you back.
But I’ve also heard these same pieces of advice from people who were in powerful positions and used them as ways to abdicate themselves of their responsibility to mentor and guide. And the same rhetoric is used by the individualistic, self-determination, capitalist proponents.
I was a young leader. By 25 I had co-established the first Goddess Temple in the Southeast, was leading large group rituals, had been teaching for several years, and facilitated a few small Circles. I'm not the majority, I understand that. But I had a lot of support along the way, people that somehow recognized what I was still figuring out, people that showed up for me, who welcomed me and guided me. It was hard. And I did a lot of it by my own determination and persistence. But never was I told to just pull myself up by my bootstraps and keep going. The people that I am honored to call my friends and supporters (both here and across the veil) were always there to help me – even if I didn’t always see it at the time.
I'm in my early 30s now, and personally I feel that it is an even more awkward stage than the 20s... but we'll get to that later.
How does this expectation that young people are supposed to figure it out on their own help to create healthy, creative, accountable communities? As one friend put it, in the 70s and 80s we(they) had to figure it out as they went along, because it hadn't been done before. But now, there are at least two generations of Pagans that can help the next generation. They don't have to make it all up. The way I see it, this generation is the first to truly have the opportunity and the burden of learning from those who came before and then working towards building a better future. But, it is up to us (the old guard) to change the culture so that it welcomes new leaders, new ideas, and new experiences. That is our responsibility, not theirs.
We seem to have a blind spot when it comes to the next generation.
We’ve allowed a very culturally-embedded difference to become a battleground – the generation gap. All too often I see an Elder or a Seeker denigrated because they said the “wrong” thing or don’t follow the same theory of tradition and practice that someone thinks they should. The younger generation looks at the older generation as people on pedestals that are holding them down, and the older generation looks at the younger like up and comers who are trying to change everything they worked so hard for. There is no trust, no love, no appreciation. This generation gap is only serving to divide and conquer. If the elders are always dismissive of the youth, and the youth are always angry at the elders, how will we ever learn and come together and work on the really hard stuff? We won’t. And then the ‘Oppressive Powers That Be’ win.
Our movement is inherently resistant to authority and rejects the idea of there being centralized leadership, which is a powerful resistance in this world. But the fact is we do have leaders and people who step into roles of leadership. These people are the Big Name Pagans (rightly or wrongly so) and the person who decides to start a group in their town because there is nothing else. We can acknowledge this and choose to model a different way, a healthier way, of shared power and well-developed leaders. Or we can continue to ignore it and suffer from those who will use the opportunity to seize power and wield it harmfully. I think it is time to model a better way.
So, how do we help develop the next generation of leaders? How do we create healthy networks of communities?
There are many ways to develop leadership, but as a movement Earth Based Religions (which I use as an umbrella term) are just starting to figure it out. So we look to other religions and other fields, gathering what feels right to our bosom and cutting away the rest. It’s a process, and with all of the other causes that are so front and center (and rightly so) it sometimes feels like this one should take a backseat. But I think it is essential to the healing and change we need. We haven’t been doing it right – and I can tell you that the younger generation sees it, and feels it, and doesn’t want to inherit it… and has some pretty damn good ideas about how to change it.
I actually don’t believe that you can ‘teach’ leadership. You can teach some tools, share your own mistakes and talk theoretical scenarios. But you can’t just get up in front of a group, give a presentation on leadership (or a hundred presentations) and then say they are ready to be a leader. Leadership must be developed. It is a continuous process. It means making mistakes again and again and again. And it takes ongoing support.
My favorite leadership development model is a mentorship model. This model is one of the most time and energy intensive, but also has the greatest potential for individual and collective reward. To be successful, it also has to have a solid foundation of respect and trust, with a clear understanding of expectations and commitment.
Learning never ends, and even the most experienced and skilled among us will have times when another perspective or someone else’s guidance is helpful. Never should we place a leader, elder, or mentor up on a pedestal and expect them to always have to figure it out on their own, either. Being in a position of leadership (as opposed to claiming a Title) is often tiring, draining, stressful work with little reward and few opportunities of reciprocity. We must build networks of support; communities that share power and value each other’s experiences and insights.
Naturally, these networks must be developed. You can’t create community-by-policy. And reciprocity becomes a huge issue – it can easily start to feel like you are doing all the giving and none of the receiving while mentoring. We can’t – and shouldn’t – dictate community or try to create it through policy. But we can create some loose structures to support the nurturing of community. For quite some time, I’ve been tumbling around the idea of a mentorship network.
Now, I actually detest the term “mentor.” So, in tumbling around this idea, and discussing it with my dear friend Byron Ballard, I came up with the idea of Buds and Blooms.
A healthy community, like an ecological system, is one of diversity, solid roots, room to breathe, supportive shelter, and healthy nourishment. The smallest beetle to the largest mammal and everything in between all have an important role to play; without any of them the entire system collapses. We must remember this in our networks and models of leadership as well.
So, a healthy leadership network has buds and blooms – but even the blooms need the support of the rest of the community to thrive, and the buds need the support so they can come full bloom. Different plants have different blooming cycles, just as different people come into their own bloom at different periods of their life – and they may die back and re-bloom again and again.
This network of buds and blooms would allow everyone the opportunity to mentor and guide someone else, thus fulfilling the need for a feeling of reciprocity and building a community of support. Everyone would be paired up with their own bud, even those in their first sprouting. (Ok, am I losing you in the metaphor? Let’s just break this down into straight-forward terms)
My ideas for the development of healthy leadership are based in the belief that all voices and points of view are valued, and everyone has something to offer. The newest of newbs can support other newbies on their journey, and offer perspectives on the experience to the person guiding them, so that person can continue to grow as a leader. Experienced leaders can support one another instead of compete, and help each other through the journey of leadership with all of the ups and downs and mistakes and victories and exhaustion.
Its been shown in mentorship models (yuck) that it is best to partner with someone who is not so far removed from your own current level of experience, so that they can still relate and feel the relevance of what you are experiencing. So when looking for a mentor, keep that in mind. Don’t aim for the BNP with 30 years of experience if you are fresh with 2 years of experience (and that is for many reasons). Discuss your current experiences, what you are struggling with, what you hope to learn – and if the person can’t relate to any of it or talks down to you in any way, they are probably not the person for you. Get references, ask around about their style and if anyone has any concerns. Once you find someone you can relate with, then it is time to set very clear agreements and expectations for the both of you, and create clear lines of communication.
Ok, back to my metaphor of the buds and the blooms and creating some structure to help nurture leadership and communities. I know we (as in the umbrella we) are generally resistant to structures – but, given the minority of our religions and spiritualties, and that many people do not live near others who can provide them guidance or can’t publically seek others out for any reason, I think some structures can have a place. So creating a network of individuals to guide one another could be a huge gift to our communities. There would have to be some kind of vetting process, particularly for Blooms. People would be paired and grouped in small nexuses (like galaxies), according to a diverse yet complementary mix of experience and needs, sharing support and power among one another (which would also help prevent any abuse). The validity of all perspectives and levels of experience would be emphasized and valued, while also creating the space for guidance for all regardless of experience.
Let’s take each other off the pedestals, offer our hands to those patiently waiting in the wings, and call each other in to the circle. We are all sacred, all divine, all worthy of respect and all inherently valuable. It’s time to co-create the future we deserve, take back our power, and show the “normals” how it can be done.